Council Needs An Integrity Repair: Benn

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The only true constant is change and change is what is required at Ottawa City Hall.

A theme that has emerged this week on The Bulldog is how many city projects, initiatives and policies have gone sideways. The LRT is six months late unless it is more. It is over-budget, but we don’t know by how much. The underground sewage tunnel overflow storage project is at least six-months late, and likely over budget, but we don’t know by how much. The integrity commissioner stating that he doesn’t have jurisdiction to investigate the $10-million Christmas Miracle (did College Councillor Rick Chiarelli apply for a trademark on that?), which when you boil it down to its basics is truly a matter of integrity. Add in Innes Councillor Jody Mitic’s poor judgment regarding his affaire de coeur with a member of his staff, and let’s close with the arrogance of the Friday evening press releases.

I don’t just mean the need to change some of the individuals who populate the council chamber. That type of change is required, but that is not the only change needed. What’s needed relates to the behaviour of the people in the council chamber.

Cynicism starts with a lack of faith in the system. Cynicism leads to low voter turnouts. Cynicism leads to a lack of respect, not just for the individuals who behave poorly, but for the offices they hold. To combat cynicism the system that needs change. What breeds cynicism is the overt, blatant decisions by the people in positions of authority to choose withhold the status of major projects when the leading indicators are all flashing yellow.

City staff knew months before the municipality announced the LRT project would be late. They might not have known how late, but they knew it would be late. They would have briefed the mayor’s office, and likely the chair of the transportation committee. Failure to do so would be career-limiting. The decision to not disclose the situation to the public was political. City staff likely knows approximately how much over budget the project will be, and they likely have briefed the powers that be. Again, the decision to not disclose the current estimate of how much over budget the LRT project is political. The same comments apply to the underground sewage overflow storage project.

The decision to share the $10-million Christmas Miracle was a political decision. Staff advised the mayor’s office, the mayor acknowledged that he shared that information only with his inside circle.

 

 

The cause of the problem is becoming clear. We have a mayor who is more intent on managing the information he has than in sharing it with his fellow councillors and the public. This from the person who, some eight years ago, ran on a platform of open, transparent and accountable government.

Accordingly, the solution is not just in changing who sits around the council chamber. It has to start with what the people who sit around the council chamber perceive to be how they should behave. Are they “governors” who happen to be politicians or are they merely politicians in a position of governance? Are they in favour of governing in an open, transparent and accountable manner or do they content to just mouth the words? Are they people of integrity who demand that those around are also people of integrity?

The starting point is to acknowledge the current system has been abused and to take steps to limit the ability of those who have abused the system to continue that behaviour.

Council should make it clear, as it did during former mayor Larry O’Brien’s ill-fated tenure, that the mayor is but one vote. Council needs to set its authority early, to ensure that the mayor’s office does not control the release of information that every councillor is entitled to receive. Its members should set the requirement that all reports that will eventually be circulated to council be circulated directly by staff, not by the mayor’s office. Why? Because the current occupant of the mayor’s office has abused his privilege far too often, for his political advantage.

Second, council should not support any motion that limits its authority over the city budget. For the last two terms councillors have operated under a self-imposed restriction. If they want to add funding to a specific area, they have to identify an equal number of dollars to be eliminated from another specific area.

Finally, the integrity office should either have the authority to investigate all matters of integrity, or it should be disbanded, with the funds spent on worthwhile initiatives. Why? Because, during the Senate-expenses fiasco, Senator Vern White made the most important observation of that whole sordid episode – it all starts with integrity.

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.

 

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10 thoughts on “Council Needs An Integrity Repair: Benn

  1. Ron,
    That pretty much sums it up.

    How can things change?

    1/ Each staff member must adhere to a personal professional ethic and ignore politics completely.

    2/ Each member of council must read about their legal responsibilities. (There is a handbook written specifically addressing those responsibilities)

    3/ The law must be changed so that a citizen does not need to hire a lawyer and jump through hoops in order to start an action against city hall. Look up what it takes to start an investigation into a charge of conflict of interest against a councillor – it’s virtually impossible for a citizen to remove an elected individual except on election day.

    But, politics has been this way since the Magna Carta so why change it now?

    1+

  2. All well said by both contributors but the most important person (not just in his mind but as viewed by the individual councillors) is the leader of the pack Mayor Jim Watson.
    He set the mess in motion when he decreed no debate in open council sessions but green-room deals only.
    This totally undermined the democratic process, removed transparency and openness and allowed all representatives to hide behind the mayor’s robes.

    3+

    1. Yes, but did council not just tag along and let it happen. Historically a despot is only in charge because he has an army or the support of powerful people ( sometimes one, sometimes the other and most times both).

      Does his lairdship have an army that I am not aware of or is it merely the other.

      skoal,
      Chaz

      0

      1. Chaz, Mayor Jim Watson has organized his acolytes on council like a provincial government. He rules like a premier with a majority government. His inner circle, comprised of committee chairpersons are his cabinet. He has a party whip (Councillor Marck Taylor) who keeps everyone in line, and anyone who steps out of line by speaking out against the party line punished. Ask councillors Riley Brockington and Mathieu Fleury.

        1+

  3. 1) The city has far too many ongoing projects at any point in time, especially smaller projects costing $50,000, $100,000, etc. Added up, the cost of these projects amounts to millions of dollars that could be spent on the major issues which are discussed regularly on The Bulldog. All projects at city hall need to be evaluated and prioritized so a schedule for execution can be set in place. Ottawa is a small city with far too much going on.
    2) City councillors need to be given measureable job descriptions (hopefully they are) and voters made aware of their responsibilities so intelligent decisions can be made at municipal election time. If attending as many bake sales as possible within a 4-year period is part of Jim Watson’s job description then he’s going to be hard to defeat.

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    1. Sisco,
      It isn’t always that people aren’t aware. Mostly it is about not thinking that your vote counts and thinking that it will be the same ole same ole no matter who is in office.

      Look at the percentage of eligible voters that get out to vote. It is an abysmal turnout in the little city of Ottawa, in the little province of Ontario and in the wee country of Canada. The non-voter gets what they deserve and the voter gets stuck with the unqualified elected individuals.

      skoal,
      Chaz

      1+

      1. Chaz. Many people don’t show up at the polls because they don’t feel their vote will make a difference, some aren’t aware an election is even taking place, and in some instances votes that are cast are based on how one candidate combs his or her hair compared to the others.

        So, how many votes are cast intelligently by informed people within our system? This is the system we have created. Is it the best option? Probably not. Could it do with improvement? Absolutely. That’s what our leaders should be spending their energies on, not digging into the muck of proper bicycle lane design.

        0

  4. Let’s not forget the circle of senior staff who enable the bad behaviour of the mayor and his acolytes. They are the true untouchables and, when they picked their old buddy Kanellakos as the “new” city manager last year, you know they’re going to rule the roost for some time to come.

    1+

    1. EajD,
      Indeed, let’s not forget staff’s involvement. Staff should never play favourites. Back in my day, if I were telling the mayor in person about something that also meant that I had already put the same info in the in-box of every other councillor.
      Also, you would have never heard me say that my mayor had his finger on the pulse of the city better than any other person I knew.

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